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Funding the Safety-Net: Let’s Get Real!

July 22, 2009

Author: Terri Lee Freeman

This time a year ago I thought the Foundation would be learning about best practices in middle school education reform. Our plan called for us to identify programs in the region and throughout the country that were having success at decreasing the drop out crisis that is rarely spoken of – from middle to high school. And in fact, we were proceeding down that path when the bottom began to fall out of our economy and it became clear that more people in our neighborhoods throughout the region were finding themselves in search of the basics – food, clothing, shelter and emergency financial assistance. And the likely place to get this assistance was from local community-based nonprofit organizations. But what was happening to the nonprofits?

Their fall appeal letters to donors were yielding less than anticipated. Government deficits were growing daily which would lead to cutbacks in funding support. The supplies at food pantries were low and demand was steadily increasing. Foreclosures in the region were on the rise, depositing more and more people on the streets and in need of shelter. So we redirected some money originally set aside to evaluate possible middle school programs and established the Neighbors in Need Fund to provide funding for organizations providing safety-net services to residents throughout the region. We were heartened by the response from our family of donors and others, who have already contributed more than $3 million. This fund is another example of the value of community foundations: to be there when our communities need us; and to catalyze and support the giving of our donors to address the most pressing needs here and now.

A first round of grants totaling $455,000 was distributed by the Neighbors in Need Fund in February. Now in the midst of our second round we’ve learned more about what our nonprofit partners really need in this unsettled funding environment:

General operating support is the fuel that keeps the nonprofit engine humming and they all need more of it! While special projects are fun and give those of us who make grants something to brag about, general operating allows the organization to focus on its mission and really be responsive to the needs of their target population. We’ve patted ourselves on the back for being so “nimble” and redirecting dollars to this fund but our nonprofit partners tell us we still are not flexible enough. Our applications are too long and require too many supporting documents. It still takes too long from proposal to grant distribution. And there penalties if nonprofits change direction in mid-stream, even if they continue to focus on their mission.

One size doesn’t fit all. Who should we support – anchor organizations that are well established in community and often have large operating budgets; small, neighborhood-based organizations that are closer to the people; emerging nonprofit organizations that have an entrepreneurial approach to safety-net solutions? Yes, yes and yes is the answer. There are strengths and weaknesses with each of these nonprofit models; good grantmaking will not eliminate a particular type of organization but rather evaluate the community’s needs and the nonprofit’s resources and make the appropriate match.

WANTED: Safe spaces for conversation, collegial working opportunities, and to let their hair down. This work is hard. Dealing with the very basic needs of humanness on a daily basis can wear down a spirit. Watching your neighbors take two steps forward, and helping them make that progress, to then watch them take three steps back, can be difficult. But these leaders have chosen to make a difference in the lives of others and in community. We need to support their ability to share, to learn and to take respite.

This is what we’ve heard from those doing the work in community. Now, we must practice active listening and incorporate these concepts into our giving and our work with nonprofits. It’s time to get real, for everyone’s sake.

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